Whenever a critic complains about an action movie being brainless, there are always voices that pop up claiming that the critic is the one with a problem. The fact that not every film has to be a heartfelt romance or complex drama is twisted into an excuse for movies to be assembled with all the thought and nuance of a chimpanzee let loose in a pottery store. I am pleased to say that “Baby Driver” is not one of those movies.
The film opens with Baby and three other thieves in a car outside a bank. The others leave to begin the robbery while Baby cues up the 1994 alt-rock song “Bellbottoms” on one of what we later find out to be his multiple iPods. He spends the next five minutes just jamming out in the car while the rest of the gang pulls off the robbery. It’s an unusual but very endearing scene that a lot of directors might not have been bold enough to include. Once the getaway begins, Baby switches to a more appropriate song and leads the police on an elaborate chase through downtown Atlanta with virtually no dialogue. There are a number of other scenes like it throughout the movie; “Baby Driver” is almost worth watching just for them.
Put thoughts of comparison to “The Fast and The Furious” and its various sequels and rip-offs out of your mind. Despite ostensibly being in the same genre, the two films couldn’t have less in common. “Baby Driver” is a smart, well-directed action movie with a decidedly retro feel. More than anything, the film reminds me of Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film “Drive,” and not just because of the similar titles. There’s actually a lot that the two have in common when you think about it, but more on that later.
“Baby Driver” is directed by Edgar Wright, who, in addition to a number of writing and producing credits, is known for “Shaun of the Dead,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “The World’s End.” With Wright’s most successful films being comedies, “Baby Driver” almost seems to be something of a departure, although I stress the word almost. Tonally, it somewhat resembles “Ant Man,” which Wright had been initially chosen to direct but abandoned due to creative differences. Even then, “Baby Driver” reaches more of a balance between action, comedy and drama rather than action-comedy.
The film stars Ansel Elgort as Baby, a young but extremely talented getaway driver working for an enigmatic crime boss known only as “Doc,” played by Kevin Spacey. Baby suffers from tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ears, so is almost always seen listing to music in order to drown it out. The contents of his multiple iPods, along with the occasional radio station, take the place of a more traditional score for the film. Elgort is an unusual choice for an action-movie lead, but that’s kind of the point, and he fits the role perfectly. I’m just glad to see him in something other than the latest “young adult” cash-in. I know critics tend to throw the “next big thing” label around a bit too easily sometimes, but he’s proven himself to be a very talented character actor and it’s nice to see him finally getting some proper recognition.
Keven Spacey is brilliant as Doc, but that’s really no surprise, as he has a knack for playing eccentric villains. Doc is a hard character to read, alternating between deadly serious and full-on manic. In one scene, he’s yelling about how impressed he is with himself for drawing out the planned heist on a chalkboard while in the middle of a conversation and in another, he’s threatening to kill Baby and his new girlfriend, with neither moment feeling out of character. Spacey’s performance seems scattered at first but is clearly executed in a very deliberate way. It’s hard to tell whether Doc’s jovial persona is just a front for a sociopathic manipulator or if it’s the other way around. Either way, Spacey pulls it off masterfully, and the contrast between “that’s my boy” Doc and “I’ll kill everyone you know” Doc is jarring in exactly the right way.
Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Eliza González and CJ Jones all do well in prominent supporting roles, but James isn’t really given a whole lot to do. If you saw the trailer with her meeting Baby, you pretty much know everything there is to know about her character. Jones works really well as Baby’s elderly, deaf stepfather and features in some of the most memorable scenes. Bernthal’s character is probably the most nuanced of the supporting cast, as well as the only one besides Baby who has a perceptible arc.
Earlier, when I said that the film has a lot in common with “Drive,” I meant it. In addition to both paying homage to crime thrillers of the seventies and eighties, they also both feature an extremely gifted getaway driver with an unusual affect who’s trying to go straight but gets dragged back into a life of crime mostly against their will. That’s not as much of a likeness as it sounds like, but it speaks to “Baby Driver” having a lot of broad strokes similar to other movies with the difference being in the details.
For example, there’s a point about thirty or forty minutes in, after the second heist, in which Baby’s paid off his debt to Doc and tries to quit being his getaway driver. Disregarding the fact that there’s still more than half of the movie left, anyone who’s ever seen a crime movie before is sitting there waiting for the next shoe to drop. Fortunately, the scene doesn’t go on too long before Kevin Spacey shows up again to start hurling the proverbial shoes at you, and the various chases, shootouts and character interactions that follow are handled in creative and compelling ways, which makes it easy to overlook the predictable beats unless you’re specifically looking for them.
Now, I did think the third-act villain strained the film’s credibility a little. I’m not going to tell you who he is or why he’s after Baby since that would be a spoiler, but I will say that the new guy seems to survive near-certain death a few too many times. It’s a common trope in movies to have a character who is assumed but never shown to be dead turn up later, but he pulls that stunt like three times. The fact that his escapes always happen off screen don’t help matters. For the most part, the movie is realistic about what both cars and human beings can survive, so it’s a little bit jarring how much it takes to kill this guy.
Despite the few minor annoyances, I want to stress that the good aspects of “Baby Driver” vastly outweigh the bad. Summer is blockbuster season and “Baby Driver” does a lot to make itself stand out from the crowd. It is a fun, creative film, and one that even people who aren’t usually fans of action movies might enjoy.